You may have noticed the above title does not say “Aikido Practice Guidelines.” That’s because the advice below comes from a seemingly unrelated source: a lecture series given by jazz trumpet great Wynton Marsalis. The lecture series is entitled Marsalis on Music, and was produced by television station WNET in New York.
The section of the Marsalis series from which the following comes is entitled “Tackling the Monster.” During our ongoing relationship with Aikido, some may find this title applicable to their own practice.
Tackling the Monster:
- Seek Private Instruction
- Make a Schedule
- Set Goals
- Relax – Practice Slowly
- Practice Hard Parts Longer
- Play With Expression
- Learn From Your Mistakes
- Don’t Show Off
- Think For Yourself
- Be Optimistic
- Look For Connections
Marsalis’ advice may seem deceptively simple, perhaps even obvious. And yet, how many times during taijutsu practice, when Sensei corrects your movements, have you thought, “That’s such a simple movement! I’m making it much more complicated than it needs to be”?
The only place the word “think” appears in the above Twelve Ways is in example #10: “Think for Yourself.” This does not mean think; it means “be who you are.” It means take what is offered to you, and make it a part of you. Over-thinking a technique is a common part of the learning process, yet it often is a block in the path to the goal of connecting your body and mind.
Example #4 tells us to concentrate. Not think. For Aikido, we may translate “concentrate” to mean focus. Intent. Purpose. Direction. Drawing uke into your sphere, if you prefer. When you are in the moment, the moment is all there is.
There is an old story of the time O-Sensei was challenged by a kendo master. The kendo master had his sword; O-Sensei was bare-handed. The two men took a stance, focussing on each other, not moving. After five minutes of this, the kendo master bowed to O-Sensei and went away. O-Sensei’s concentration was pure, it never wavered for an instant.
“Be Optimistic,” says #11. Many of us have come to Aikido after practicing other martial arts, and had fun doing them, but felt something was missing. O-Sensei tells us to practice in a joyful manner, and indeed, how buoyant you feel after a good practice. But sometimes it is harder, or you are more tired, and the smiles may not come as easily. This is the time to find the joy in your practice.
How many times has Sensei said, “Relax”? Practice is harder when you tense up, or try to force it. Conversely, how much easier it is to put uke down when he is rigid. Number 5 not only says relax, but also practice slowly.
This can mean physically moving deliberately, but it can also mean being aware. When you tense up and try to “blast” through a technique, maybe thinking speed is the way to get the job done, all your molecules suddenly seem to have a mind of their own, going off in all different directions — and none of them is the correct direction. When you relax, become aware, and are in the moment, then all your molecules move at the same time and in the appropriate manner.
Koichi Tohei was once quoted as saying: “The only thing of value O-Sensei ever taught was how to relax.” To a beginner, this may seem an arrogant statement. But after a little while you begin to see the true meaning in this — like when a 6’4″ uke is slamming a shomen uchi strike down at your head, and somehow you not only manage to get out of the way, but also perform ikkyo on him without thinking about it. Tohei-Sensei’s words make a lot of sense.
The final bit of advice, Look for Connections, engenders a mental explosion of bright light. All the roots of Aikido technique feed the same tree. During class, how often have you heard Sensei say, “Raise your bokken”? Or “Drop your hips”? Or “Capture the elbow”?
There’s an old, old joke that goes: A new fellow is sentenced to prison. When he arrives, the group of prisoners are sitting around, quiet. Suddenly, one of them yells out, “2!” All the other prisoners break up in laughter. Another man shouts, “11!” More raucous hilarity.
The new fellow is confused by this, and asks the man sitting next to him what’s going on. The old prisoner replies, “Well, we’ve all heard all the jokes so many times, we just went ahead and gave them numbers.”
So the next day the new fellow shouts out, “2!” But no one laughs. He turns to the old prisoner and asks why. The old man says, “Well, son, some people can tell a joke, and some can’t.”
In our dojo, we’ve joked about numbering all the basic Aikido aspects, like raise your bokken, or drop your hips, because these same themes arise during practice over and over. These connections are always there and are what make Aikido so simple — and at the same time, so much like tackling a monster.
Even though the inspiration for this essay came from a jazz trumpeter, it seems like true mastery of just about any art converges on a set of basic principles. Wynton Marsalis, thank you for reminding us.